At Mit, The Party's Over

The high jinks began on "Animal House" Night: 12 new Phi Gamma Delta pledges at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were ordered to watch the iconic Belushi flick while downing beer and Jack Daniel's. Around 11 p.m., they lined up to meet their "big brothers," then everybody sang a boozy fraternity song that ended, "Drink her down, drink her down, drink her down, down, down." According to the local D.A., Scott Krueger's big brother brought a bottle of spiced rum for them to drink down together. By early the next morning, Krueger was in a coma, his blood alcohol content a toxic .40 percent. Two days later he died.

Krueger's 1997 death still haunts his family--and the MIT campus. Last week the university agreed to pay $4.75 million to Scott's parents and $1.25 million to a scholarship fund in his memory. That's believed to be a record settlement for such a death--and more than a jury might have awarded if the family had taken MIT to court. "At a very personal level, I feel that we at MIT failed you and Scott," MIT's president, Charles Vest, wrote to Bob and Darlene Krueger. "For this you have our profound apology."

Vest went on to admit that "our approach to alcohol education and policy... were inadequate." MIT is not alone. Though deaths from alcohol poisoning are still rare, excessive student drinking is not. Nationwide, 44 percent of students are "binge drinkers," according to surveys by Harvard's School of Public Health; bingers are defined as men who've consumed five drinks in one sitting within the past two weeks, and women who've had four in a row. And no one disputes that alcohol fuels such problems as date rapes, vandalism and poor grades. While the number of students who don't drink at all has increased lately, to one in five, the number of bingers isn't dropping.

That's especially discouraging at schools that are making a real effort to curb abuse. One year after the 1997 death of 20-year-old Benjamin Wynne at Louisiana State University, the school accepted a $700,000 grant to find new ways to fight alcohol abuse. Officials tightened security to keep booze out of football games and created an MTV-style video of student testimonials about high-risk drinking. Nevertheless, LSU is rated the nation's top "party school" by the Princeton Review. During the first football weekend, three freshmen were hospitalized with alcohol poisoning.

Since Krueger's death, MIT has also toughened its stand. In addition to educating students about drinking, the school now requires resident advisers to live in Greek houses, where problems most often occur. Frats also must have at least two members certified in CPR, and any alcohol for parties must be purchased by designated students who are supposed to make sure that drinkers are of legal age. Most important, after a new residence hall is finished in 2002, MIT will require all freshmen to live in dormitories.

It was Vest who asked to meet with the Kruegers to talk about a settlement--even though the family hadn't filed suit against MIT. They all met at a remote lodge named Beaver Hollow, not far from the Kruegers' suburban Buffalo, N.Y., home. Darlene Krueger greeted Vest with a barrage of such angry questions that her Boston attorney, Leo Boyle, gently restrained her. "[Vest] didn't get a chance to answer because I kept yelling at him," she told NEWSWEEK. "I said, 'How could you let this happen to my son?' " Vest then apologized, and, as he told NEWSWEEK, "an agreement flowed very quickly and directly." The session was emotional to the end. Vest had attended Scott's funeral in 1997, but had not approached the family that day to offer personal condolences. As their meeting ended, Vest embraced Darlene and told her, "I hope this [hug] isn't too late."

The Kruegers' anguish won't go away, and neither will their fears. Their son Jeff is now a senior in high school. Before he enrolls at a college, Darlene plans to inspect the school's alcohol policies. She'll also visit the local police station and hospital emergency rooms to ask how often student drinking becomes a problem. Not until she has the answers, she says, will she allow her surviving son to set foot on campus.

At Mit, The Party's Over | News